Apr 23 2007

Gaming In Education

College professors are incorporating video games into their curriculum. Here's a look at the benefits and IT's role

Colleges incorporate video games into classroom learning with the
support of IT.

With the help of Systems Administrator Scott Dierks, University of Minnesota professors Nora Paul (left) and Kathleen Hansen converted “Neverwinter Nights” from a Dungeons & Dragons game into a journalism learning exercise.

It’s a rookie reporter’s dream story: A train derails, sending a toxic gas cloud over the town. The editor dispatches two veteran writers and orders the new reporter to join them. It’s a sink-or-swim opportunity, and two University of Minnesota professors are giving journalism students the chance to practice their new craft by using a computer role-playing game modified to simulate a real-world news operation.

Journalism professors Kathleen Hansen and Nora Paul converted “Neverwinter Nights,” a Dungeons & Dragons-type medieval adventure game full of orcs and hobgoblins into a modern-day small town with 23 humans whom journalism students have to interview. If the reporters act too cocky, sources will refuse to answer. If they are timid or ask the wrong questions, the students won’t get good responses. Once students complete their interviews, they have to write a story.

“It’s a great way for students to address the concepts they are learning in class,” Hansen says. “They are very much aware that this is an opportunity to learn how to avoid mistakes when they get out in the real world.”

Hansen and Paul aren’t the only college professors incorporating educational video games into their curricula. While some educators still scoff at video games, they can be converted into valuable learning tools that allow students to develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, says Kurt Squire, a professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Computer games are a great way to engage a generation of students who grew up with Nintendo, Sony PlayStation and Xbox, says economics professor Jeffrey Sarbaum. Last year he created an educational computer game to teach economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

“I increasingly see students driven by multimedia and the interactivity and multitasking that it breeds, and I realized that traditional lectures with standard PowerPoint slides are becoming less and less effective,” Sarbaum says.

Turning games into legitimate learning tools requires a new approach from IT departments, which have historically banned games in student computer labs. For graphic-intensive games to become part of the classroom experience, IT must ensure that campus computers have the processing power, memory and video cards powerful enough to handle them. In some cases, IT staffers are collaborating with professors to help modify existing games or create new ones.

In Minnesota, Hansen and Paul wrote the dialogue to their journalism game. Through a grant, they hired software developers to modify the existing game.

At North Carolina, Sarbaum’s students don’t just play a game as part of his economics class. It is the class — an online class that’s a video game. Sarbaum developed the game with more than 40 people, including graphic designers, 3-D artists, software developers, writers and content editors from the university’s Division of Continual Learning.

IT’s Role

For the past four years, assistant history professor Andrew McMichael has required his students at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green to play a history simulation game called “Civilization III” as a homework assignment. In the game, his students rule an empire from 4000 B.C. to 500 A.D.

To succeed, they must build an infrastructure, develop a military and use their diplomatic skills as they come across real historical figures. But before his students could transport themselves to 4000 B.C. and start conquering new worlds, McMichael needed to conquer two technology problems.

First, students had trouble installing the game. And second, games were not permitted in the school’s computer labs. So McMichael wrote a cheat sheet, giving students a step-by-step installation guide. And he asked the college’s IT department to make an exception to its policy against games.

John Bowers, the college’s director of academic technology, gave his approval on the condition that participating students carry a note from McMichael stating that they are enrolled in his class and are allowed to play the game.

Supporting the games is a cinch, Bowers says. “It’s not any more complicated to support than the dozens of scientific simulations we support,” he maintains.

Scott Dierks, systems administrator at the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, ran into issues that required workarounds when he loaded copies of the journalism game into a directory that allowed students to access the game on the network.

Like most PC games, “Neverwinter Nights” was not designed for lab environments. Students using the journalism lab must log in and access their home directories and data stored on a server. Students aren’t allowed to save games on the computer’s hard drive, or they would have to always use the same computer to continue where they left off, Dierks says.

He solved the problem by having students save the games on their home directories. He then created batch files — or scripts — that automatically move the necessary files to and from the students’ home directories when they are launching the game. That allows them to play the game on any PC they log in to and continue from when they last saved, he says.

An Economics Lesson

In North Carolina’s online economics game, each student plays an alien who crash-lands on post-apocalyptic Earth. The students settle on Earth, learn to trade with other aliens and make decisions on whether to create a market-based economic system. The game takes eight weeks to complete.

Students must complete four levels, with three quests on each level. After every quest, they take an online quiz. “Students learn all the fundamental principles of microeconomics,” Sarbaum explains.

To play the game, students need a Web browser with a Flash plug-in installed and a high-speed Internet connection, says Matt McFarling, an instructional technology consultant who used ActionScript 2.0, XML, MySQL and PHP to develop the game. The game takes up about 1 gigabyte of university server space, he adds.

If students have technical support questions, they can click on a live chat button to ask questions via instant messaging. They can also call or e-mail technical support staff, says Scott Brewster, the university’s director of online learning and support.

90 students took UNC’s online game-driven economics course in the fall

175 students signed up for the spring session

Want to offer video games?

Overcome the stigma
Get over whatever fear you may have that games are frivolous or inappropriate. They are sophisticated and it’s a space kids are comfortable with. Playing a game can help students understand something, and educators need to embrace this as a potential way to deliver learning.” — Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at University of Minnesota

Choose the right game
“It’s like any other kind of material you use in class. You research it. If I’m going to assign a textbook, I’m going to read it and decide if it’s right, and it’s the same with video games. We have students who learn in a variety of different ways, and it’s worth exploring all the different ways to teach students.” — Andrew McMichael, assistant professor of history at Western Kentucky University

Expect some student complaints
“Students say the game is great. It gets them thinking about history in new ways. But they were surprised that it would be like work. It turns out any kind of homework stinks.” — McMichael